What are the epic characteristics of Beowulf?
Epics are long narrative poems that typically reveal the values of the culture from which they arise. The earliest epics were transmitted orally, so poets used techniques like kennings and alliteration to help remember the story and engage listeners. Good and evil are clearly defined in epics, and the epic hero (the good guy) must overcome obstacles or defeat villains.
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem, the earliest we know of in Old English. The poem is long and tells a story, and it features a classic epic hero in its title character, Beowulf. As the hero, Beowulf is larger-than-life; he is not immortal, but he is depicted as better than "normal" humans in many ways. He has superhuman strength and bravery. These characteristics are demonstrated through his decision to travel to Hrothgar's kingdom to take on the fearsome monster Grendel, who has been terrorizing the kingdom by killing and eating Hrothgar's men. The battle with Grendel proves Beowulf's epic physical strength, as he rips the monster's arm from its body and hangs it in the mead hall as a trophy. Later, Beowulf fights the monster's mother in her own cave. As an old king, Beowulf even puts his life on the line to protect his land from a dragon. Unfortunately, Beowulf is mortally wounded, but his accomplishments and his reputation stand. He goes out fighting in true heroic fashion. On the other hand, the monsters he battles— especially Grendel—are clearly described as evil and villainous, and we as readers are made to know Beowulf is heroic to defeat those beasts.
Beowulf tells us that Anglo-Saxon warrior culture valued bravery, selflessness, and strength. They also admired loyalty and followed the code of comitatus, which governed relationships between lords and those who serve their lords. The epic demonstrates a mix of pagan and Christian beliefs, as the poem was originally disseminated at a time when Christianity had not fully spread or dominated Western culture as the primary religion in Europe. The epic is an engaging tale that describes the epic hero's valiant deeds.
Like other epics, Beowulf is long. It also depicts the heroic deeds of a figure who is human, but still larger than life. Beowulf, like many (but not all) of the classical epics, was not originally composed in written form, but rather passed down in oral form by bards, singers who committed the main points of the story to memory and sang it for small audiences. Like many other epics, notably the Iliad, Beowulf includes long descriptions of the major characters' family lines and histories. The events of the poem, like in many other epics, open in medias res, as Grendel is already ravaging the Danes when the story opens. And like other epics, Beowulf occupies a prominent place in the national lore of the people that produced it.
There are many characteristics of epics. Some of the main ones seen in Beowulf are:
- Feasts or Ceremonies between moments of exciting action
- Great battles
- Sea voyage
- Search or Quest for a life-giving item or to rid the land of a dangerous menace
- Good eventually wins over evil
- Evil's story is often told so we almost feel empathy or understand evil's point of view
- The last verse/canto relates the death of the wounded, elderly hero
Some of the secondary epic characteristics in Beowulf are:
- Diversions about the histories and naming of objects
- List of the ancestry of the main characters